Saving Sick Sea Lions

Photos copyright Claire Fackler, NOAA National Marine Sanctuary. Used with permission. scw

There’s an abundance of news circulating about sea lions coming ashore to local beaches suffering from seizures brought about by domoic acid poisoning. It’s not a pretty sight when large sea lions flail about helplessly on the sand foaming at the mouth. Heartbreaking, to be sure.

The culprit here is a naturally occurring alga that blooms from about April to June; for whatever reason, these blooms can be toxic or nontoxic, says Marine Animal Rescue (MAR) Director Peter Wallenstein. “This is one weird alga, but [when it’s toxic] it takes only a small dose to wreak havoc,” he says. Little fish and shellfish consume it; they in turn become meals for larger mammals and birds. The poison is carried along and affects the brains of these big mammals and birds.

This year, Wallerstein says “the intensity of the bloom is different, it’s extremely powerful. It’s been getting worse in the last 7-8 years.”

And that means we on shore may see more seals, dolphins and pelicans getting sick.

Up and down the coast, rescuers are working at break neck speed to respond to calls; Wallerstein is pleased that, through a generous donation, his non-profit was able to purchase a second rescue truck this year.  (Wallerstein brings animals to the Marine Mammal Center in San Pedro, the only such facility in the Southland.) “It’s a good thing we have this second truck because it looks like we will need it,” he says.

In Northern Los Angeles County, Cindy Reyes, Executive Director at the California Wildlife Center (CWC) in Calabasas reminds well-meaning folks to not move, touch or bother a washed-up sea lion. “These animals are not like the trained seals you will find at Sea World,” she says. “They are wild.”

Recently, a video on CNN depicted two men moving a disorientated sea lion on a Malibu beach. They contacted the CWC but volunteers were already transporting three animals down to San Pedro. Given the lateness of the day, rescuers would have to come back in the morning. The men became agitated and angry despite efforts by a CWC volunteer to calm them; the resulting video caused public outrage.

According to Jimy Tallal of the Malibu Patch:

Reyes said it was unfortunate the video does not explain the situation….Reyes said a CWC rescue team went back to the site the next morning, and rescued just south of Dan Blocker what they believe was the same sea lion. 

“We don’t do rescues in the dark,” Reyes said. “A rocky beach in the dark is not safe for the animal or the human. We work very hard to respond to these animals beginning early in the morning. And in most situations, our current setup works.”

Reyes explains that once at the care facility, animals are usually given sedatives to calm their seizures. They are also given lots of fluids to flush the toxins out of the bodies. “This can be a quick process, such as within a week, or longer, depending on the levels of toxins,” she explains. “Sometimes, though, they just don’t make it.”

Sandy Mazza of the Daily Breeze filed a story April 12 describing the scene at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro:

Six severely ill sea lions lay listless in a dry area at the center on Monday, after being sedated because of their debilitating symptoms. [Center veterinarian Laura] Palmer said she usually sedates the animals until they are well enough to eat. There is no cure for this condition, according to Palmer, who can control the symptoms until the animals are well enough to be released. Unfortunately, many of the animals return to the center within weeks.

“We still have a lot to learn about how this alga acts, but one thing we can all do is to stop polluting our oceans, especially run-off from harmful fertilizers,” says Wallerstein.  Reyes agrees adding that advice is not just for residents who live close to the ocean, but the entire Southern California region because “chemical run-offs can have inland sources. What you do in your backyard has an effect.”

Despite the intensity of toxic algae this year, both Reyes and Wallerstein are optimistic about the future of saving and rehabbing wild animals.  A new marine mammal hospital/care center has been greenlighted for Playa del Rey. Clint Eastwood and daughter Alison are two big donors for the cause which will result in a 24/7 state-of-the-art facility staffed by some of the best veterinarians around.

Reyes says there have been many talks of a similar facility in Northern L.A. County – and with the public paying more attention to domoic acid poisoning, maybe now is the time to get those plans off the drawing board and into reality.

Another thing both Wallerstein and Reyes agree on: if you see an injured marine mammal, stay away, give the animal space and call for help. Call MAR at 800-39WHALE or the CWC at 818-222-2658. Wallerstein reassures that in his 27 years of rescuing, he’s never missed a call. Let’s hope that accolade wears true this year.

— Brenda Rees, Editor